Piermont’s Not-So-Competitive Bidding Process

Introduction from Part 1:
If you still don’t understand that your own NH town is a good place to start draining the swamp, please read on…
Piermont is a small town in Grafton County, New Hampshire. When we say small, we mean it — the population of Piermont was a mere 790 at the 2010 census.

When Teran “Terri” Mertz, wife of George Mertz, Commander, USN (Ret) was elected to a seat on the 3-person Selectboard in 2016 for a three-year term, she never expected that her attempts to insure the town simply follow rules and procedures would lead to harassment, threats of arrest, and even an attempt to ban her from entering the town offices.

When newly elected Selectwoman Terri Mertz requested a discussion item about the upcoming renewal of the Town’s Property Assessment contract be put on the agenda for the April 4, 2016 meeting of the Piermont Selectboard, she had every reason to believe that it would be and that rational discussion on the matter would occur.

When the agenda came out, it was as a sentence outline form instead of a true agenda but it stated:
“[The Executive Assistant] will be sending out requests for competitive bids to assessing companies’ in week of 04/April/2016.”

Even though it was put on the agenda as a statement rather than a discussion item, including the spelling and grammar errors, it was discussed, but in a dismissive manner with the other two Board members refusing to say anything other than that letters to prospective contractors would be going out soon.

She asked why only letters and not a full Request for Proposals, but was told it wasn’t necessary because there were so few who would do the work in the area.

It was the typical kind of hollow reasoning she would learn that was the trademark of one Board member who, when he did not have an actual or even real reason for doing or objecting to something, would make up an excuse on the spot, probably thinking no one would realize he was just dodging the issue.

However, she did not accept that excuse and afterwards contacted the DRA to get their list of approved property assessment contractors.

When the draft of the minutes of that meeting were sent out for review, Selectwoman Mertz found that no account of their discussion on that item was included and her attempts to get it put back in were met with outright obstruction and ignoring of her requests.

[Editor’s Note: It is interesting that although a big deal was made by Town counsel in the subsequent trial that all discrepancies with minutes had been corrected and all had been published, a glaring exception is that the minutes of that April 4, 2016 meeting, at which the assessment contract was discussed, have never been published on the Town’s website and still nothing about that meeting is available more than a year later.]

Selectwoman Mertz asked the then Executive Assistant about the letters that were to go out and to which companies. She also requested to see a sample letter or the actual letters that were sent out. The EA never responded and left Town employment two months later.

In just over three months after this exchange about the Assessing contract, Selectwoman Mertz was forced to file a lawsuit against the other Board members for their alleged violations of the State’s Right-to-Know laws.

Shortly after that, due to continued personal attacks on her at almost every meeting by Board members and members of the public who were verbally attacking her, without evidence or actual knowledge of any wrong-doing on her part, incredibly blaming all the ineptness and incompetency of the other members on her, she took a leave of absence from the Board.

She did so because the two other Board members were spending so much time finding ways to verbally abuse her at meetings and accuse her of things she never did that very little Town work was being done. As she was always outvoted 2-1 on everything she proposed for the benefit of the Town, like ambulance service for the eastern portion of the Town, it made no real difference to town business that she took the leave of absence; they were going to do what they wanted to obstruct her, whether it benefited the Town or not, and seemed intent on degrading her in the eyes of the public at every opportunity.

Even that did not stop the other two Board members from attacking her, stating publicly that they thought it was illegal for her to take a leave of absence, although it wasn’t and they had nothing to base their claim on.

In an attempt to prove that, they wasted taxpayer money by seeking to get a supporting opinion from the Town attorney. However, for all the money they spent, nothing ever came from the Town attorney that was made public, for the simple reason that there is nothing wrong with the fact that she did so and there are plenty of examples of other Board members in other towns taking a leave of absence for the good of their community.

Despite that fact, it appears that most of Selectwoman Mertz’s detractors in the Town still ridiculously think, again without any evidence or any real reason, that it was illegal for her to do so.

By late September, though, it became clear to her that Town business was still not being done properly in her absence. Not only had nothing been done about the Assessing contract that was due to expire in three months, the published minutes of Board meetings showed continuing and worsening violations of the Right-to-Know laws.

The minutes made in her absence disagreed significantly from recordings of their respective meetings; critical discussions were being sanitized and comments from the public completely changed from what was recorded.

What was worse, though, was that the minutes were being censored; entire discussions on matters important to the public but possibly detrimental to the Board or certain persons were completely omitted.

After discussions with her attorney, she returned from her leave of absence on October 6, 2016.

[Editor’s Note: On October 11, 2016, only 5 days after her return, Selectwoman Mertz and her husband were subjected to irrational and unwarranted verbal abuse in the Town Offices by a Town employee who then, along with a Board member, made false statements to not only law enforcement officers but to the general public as well at a meeting that evening, as covered in a previous installment of this article.]

Subsequent to her return and investigation into the status of the Assessing contract issue, Selectwoman Mertz discovered that:

1. No letters to potential contractors had ever been sent out by the former Executive Assistant as promised back in April and May of 2016.
2. No other action had been taken in her absence, even though time was becoming short for receipt and analysis of proposals.
3. The current contractor, Avitar Associates, had submitted an unsolicited proposal in September.
4. When she insisted that letters go out immediately, she was told two had been sent out but she was only given a copy of one letter; the second apparently was never sent and the name of that second contractor was never revealed to her despite repeated requests.
5. The contractor the one letter was sent to initially refused to bid, but after receiving a phone call that communicated more information to him, he finally did so. That was why Selectwoman Mertz had initially insisted an RFP instead of letters should have been sent out back in May of 2016.
6. Because there was no RFP, both Avitar and the other contractor bid to different specifications.
7. The Avitar contract proposal was sent to the DRA for review, as required, but the other contractor’s proposal never was, despite requests from Selectwoman Mertz that it be done.

During November and December of 2016, there were brief discussions about the assessing contract proposals received. On two occasions, Selectman Colin Stubbings stated that he could not recommend the proposal competing with Avitar because, if a valuation update was necessary prior to 2021, the Town could see a charge under that contract for an additional $20,000 or more.

That had the effect that was probably intended, frightening those in attendance about a possible huge additional expense, but what he failed to mention was that in the competing contract, which had not been made public, the contractor stated:

“In the event that the ratio studies reflect a need for an update of values prior to 2021, and the Town of Piermont agrees, a DRA Rev. 500 rules update will take place at no additional cost to the Town.”

Despite requests from Selectwoman Mertz that a full public hearing on the matter be held before award of the contract, no such meeting was ever scheduled.

Then, at a meeting on December 27, 2016, for which the agenda was not promulgated to the public until almost the last minute and at which the public was not permitted to speak in any event, the other two Board members, in Selectwoman Mertz’s absence due to other commitments during the holidays, quietly agreed between themselves to sign the Avitar contract. Questions about the contract attempted by members of the public who were in attendance were ignored and not even mentioned in the minutes.

We have several issues with the manner in which Piermont’s two Board members, Colin Stubbings and Randy Subjeck, chose to conduct Town business in this contract renewal process:

1. They knew and were repeatedly told by members of the public that there was great dissatisfaction in the Town with Avitar, particularly with what appeared to be their subjective property valuations or insistence on using erroneous information even after correction by property owners, resulting in the many abatement requests and even lawsuits, all of which were of concern to Selectwoman Mertz, at least.
2. Why were no letters requesting bids, or an actual RFP as requested by Selectwoman Mertz, ever mailed out back in May of 2016 and nothing done until she returned from her leave of absence and insisted they go out as soon as possible?
3. Why was only one letter sent out when Selectwoman Mertz had provided the Town with the DRA approved contractor list that contained more contractors than just Avitar and the one contractor solicited?
4. Why were Selectwoman Mertz’s requests to see copies of the letters supposedly sent out to prospective contractors repeatedly ignored, with at least the understood approval of the other Board members who knew of her requests because they were made at Board meetings?
5. Why was there not a properly constructed RFP sent out as early as possible to ensure that not only would-be contractors were bidding to the same specifications but also far enough ahead of time to ensure a fair and impartial bidding process?
6. Why was an erroneous statement made about the competing contractor’s proposal that made the people of the Town think $20,000 or more could be added on to that proposal when that was clearly not true?
7. Why did the other two Board members chose to award the contract during the holidays on just about the last working day of the year and in a meeting at which they allowed no public input on a matter of great importance to the Town, despite requests from Selectwoman Mertz to do so earlier in the month and at a full public meeting with unlimited public input?

We are all aware that towns surrounding Piermont and many others areas have terminated their contracts with Avitar for their own reasons of dissatisfaction with the policies of that company. There is every indication that the other two Board members were also aware of those facts but no discussions with those towns were ever scheduled. Selectwoman Mertz did ask for information from those other boards and she tried to share what she received with the Piermont Board but without success.

That should make us all wonder why Piermont Selectmen Stubbings and Subjeck seemed to go out of their way to avoid requesting or receiving competing bids for the expiring contract and then making what seems to have been a groundless excuse for not considering the lone competing bid or eventually awarding the contract in a meeting held at a time and date that effectively guaranteed minimal public attendance?

Not only should the people of Piermont question their actions but, at the very least, the DRA should investigate why it never received the competing bid for evaluation.

In the meantime, more abatement requests have been submitted and lawsuits against the Town have been threatened by Piermont taxpayers who have seen, without justification, staggering increases in their property valuations with the end-of-year invoices. As seen in the attachment to Part 5, most of those increases were between 3% to over 200%, with the excuse given that it was due to the recent revaluation by Avitar.

This exact problem was discussed with the Piermont Board on October 11, 2016, by part-time resident Carlos Manrique who saw a 34% increase in his property valuation. The transcript of that discussion is attached and it can be seen that neither Selectman Stubbings nor Subjeck were sympathetic to his complaint about the Avitar assessment, although Selectwoman Mertz was much more concerned with the burden the increased valuations by Avitar were putting on Piermont taxpayers and was still asking the other Board members to address the issue of the expiring Avitar contract.

Mr. Manrique stated that he had tried discussing the matter with an Avitar representative but then described the meeting as a “total waste of time”, which resulted in his hiring his own appraiser.

When the private appraiser’s report was received by Mr. Manrique, the result was, “… unbelievable the difference between what Avitar came with and what this fellow, professional, came with.”

He went on to say, “… my guy came with an increase, but it was only a 23 percent increase. I mean, it’s still high. And he did the same kind of research that these guys did, except they just selected certain properties to raise the prices, and I’m sure they did that to the other citizens of the town.”

“And now I’m going to submit a tax abatement. And if it’s rejected, I have to hire a lawyer.”

His conclusion was, “Your [our] taxes have been going up every single year, even without being valuated. Every single year your [our] taxes have gone up. Okay? It’s just not fair. And I don’t know how many people in the town are going to be able to take this.”

[Editor’s Note: We’ve just been informed that Mr. Manrique’s abatement request was recently denied. Despite having provided ample evidence contrary to Avitar’s assessment, when Chairman Colin Stubbings asked if there was any discussion on Avitar’s denial statement, instead of questioning why there was such a disparity between the Avitar and private appraiser’s assessments, Selectman Subjeck simply said “Motion to deny. Accept the {Avitar’s} recommendation.”]

As common as Mr. Manrique’s complaint is about Avitar valuations, at least with those thought to be rich or own spectacular properties, it does not seem to be the case with all properties in the town.

In fact, others, who are known to have made improvements to their property during that same revaluation period, somehow saw significant reductions in their valuations and subsequent taxes.

Does it have something to do with the fact that most of those who experienced the greatest increases were those who are perceived to be well off and have very desirable properties, while some of those who saw big reductions, despite improvements to their properties, seemed to have had some association with Avitar and Town government?

Could it just be a way of trying, on the part of someone with the power to do so, to get more money into the town account from those taxpayers who are thought to be able to afford it, to pay for the many lawsuits against the Town, all of which allege violations or other issues with the Selectboard and/or Avitar and could result in huge expenses to the Town in not only attorney fees but in terms of lost future revenue?

As Mr. Manrique observed, “Either they’re getting a cut or the town is going to get a thing with raising the values, …”

Whatever the reason, it probably wouldn’t do for the Selectboard to have to tell the citizens of Piermont that services, possibly including the beloved Village school, with its $2.776 million budget for 92 students, had to be curtailed because the Town had to pay for lost court cases or that the police department couldn’t continue to afford what appears to be an uncalled-for militarization of a single-person force for a town of just over 700 persons against a “just in case” threat.

Maybe that explains why questionable reasons, which may have just been another scare tactic as with the Avitar competitor’s contract, were given by Selectmen Stubbings and Subjeck at the March 2017 Town meeting for rejecting a taxpayer proposed warrant article to void the Avitar contract and bid it out properly.